Moving nuclear waste at San Onofre sparks war of words between contractor, community panel
Concerns about Holtec International’s ability to do its job — moving San Onofre’s highly radioactive nuclear waste from wet to dry storage — have been voiced by leaders of a citizens panel advising Southern California Edison on the plant’s decommissioning.
“The community engagement process has been through some rough sledding over the last 6+ months, but we are encouraged by the new direction of Edison as it prepares to restart the fuel offloading campaign,” said the private memo to Edison executives from David Victor, Dan Stetson and Jerry Kern, the executive committee for San Onofre’s volunteer Community Engagement Panel.
“However,” the memo continues, “we are increasingly concerned about a key variable in the process: Holtec.”
Holtec, copied on the missive, issued a blistering response.
“Your memo is very much in the tradition of irresponsible claptrap that dominates your CEP meetings,” it said. “An inflammatory memo unsupported by facts is little more than a hatchet job.”
Hanging in the balance: millions of pounds of nuclear waste.
Contractor Holtec began transferring the waste from wet to dry storage — where experts say it is safer — last year, but hiccups quickly tripped up progress. Workers were preparing a canister for loading in February 2018 when they discovered a loose, stainless-steel bolt inside, about 4 inches long.
An investigation revealed that Holtec had altered the canister design without permission from the NRC.
On July 22, workers had difficulties centering and aligning a canister as it was being lowered into a vault. And on Aug. 3, a 50-ton canister got stuck on a shield ring near the top of the 18-foot-deep vault where it was to be entombed. Workers didn’t realize that the slings supporting the canister’s massive weight had gone slack. It hung there, unsupported, for close to an hour, in danger of dropping.
Despite Edison’s pledges that lessons have been learned and errors will not repeat themselves, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has withheld permission to resume loading, due to concerns about scratches on the stainless steel canisters.
In their memo to Edison, Victor, Stetson and Kern said their first concern about Holtec management “arises from its behavior, so far, in the fuel offloading campaign. We can fully appreciate that a full bore offloading campaign to empty fuel pools over just a year is different from one-off campaigns that load a few canisters at a time using work crews that come and go.
“But it was extraordinary that Holtec did not anticipate these crucial differences — nor do they appear to have done much to help move lessons between their facility in Missouri (which is using the same canister technology) and SONGS.
“This poor ability to predict different conditions, manage the campaign, and move best practices across like experiences reveals a failure” in their ability to manage the project, they wrote.
The trio also voiced concerns about Holtec’s corporate governance being “opaque” and apparently “stacked by people who are not currently engaged at the frontier of the industry,” as well as doubts about how Holtec is “branching into new businesses that require very different management skills and attention than their current engineering business.”
Holtec is investing in a small modular reactor and purchasing the Oyster Creek nuclear plant in New Jersey, which “is much more management intensive” and comes “with a lot of community and regulatory exposure — areas where Holtec has not excelled in the past,” they wrote. “It’s hard to see how management stays focused in the ways that we need at SONGS.”
In its response, Edison Vice President Doug Bauder thanked them for their frankness and reiterated the company’s commitment to public safety and transparency. He also outlined in-house changes made in the wake of the problems, as well as changes at Holtec, including a new site project executive director and expanded, intensive training programs.
Holtec’s response was not quite so politic.
“(Y)ou denigrate Holtec International’s corporate management without any substantiating basis. We understand that you have not even bothered to read any of our corporate policy documents …. Perhaps familiarizing yourself with our company’s nuclear program, its global footprint and complex engagements would have given you pause before you launched your wholesale speculative attacks,” said the response from Kris Singh, Holtec president and CEO.
“(Y)our memo is crafted to sow doubt in the minds of the local people about the competence of the only company that can carry out such work! Given that underground storage in (Holtec’s Hi-Storm) UMAX is the universally-agreed safest solution, do your efforts to undermine Holtec serve public interest or sabotage it?”
“…. Our nuclear program is the envy of the world, your cheap shots notwithstanding.”
Victor, who considers Holtec’s engineering abilities robust, was taken aback by its response.
“It’s an emotional letter from someone who feels under attack and isn’t used to public scrutiny,” said Victor, co-director of UC San Diego’s Laboratory on International Law and Regulation. “You can understand it, and maybe empathize. But it’s emblematic of the point we’re making: This is not just an engineering question. It’s a public trust issue.”
He was encouraged by Edison’s response — “Edison knows they own this and this is their responsibility,” Victor said — but he’d like more from Holtec about what it has learned from the incidents at San Onofre, and how those lessons will apply in the future.
“Our focus is the future,” Victor said. “We want Holtec to be successful. If Holtec’s successful, we’re successful.”
Holtec wants to build interim storage in New Mexico to get the waste off San Onofre’s beach and house it until the federal government comes up with a permanent solution.
In the wake of the snit, Holtec Senior Vice President Joy Russell said Holtec remains committed to safety in all it does and will continue to work with Edison and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to ensure that fuel transfer operations can continue successfully at San Onofre. The company’s engineering and design expertise in dry storage technology eventually will enable plants to move their spent fuel to interim storage, she said in a statement.
Edison, for its part, continues to have full confidence in the Holtec UMAX spent fuel storage system, and in the improvements made to fuel transfer operations, spokesman John Dobken said. After multiple inspections, the NRC has found the corrective actions to be appropriate, and its focus is on resolving remaining regulatory issues, he said.
“Packaging fuel for offsite transportation is key to ultimately removing the spent fuel from San Onofre. SCE shares that goal with our stakeholders and our community.,” Dobken said. “We appreciate the efforts of the Community Engagement Panel to highlight areas of concern in a thoughtful, constructive manner.”
Read the letters here:
CEP Leadership to Edison Re Concerns about Holtec
SCE letter to CEP Leadership
Holtec letter to David Victor
Updated 6.50 p.m. with Edison statement